Junebug versus Hurricane


The Stank of Visibility

rotting flesh, stinking pride

Taylor Black

2/25/10

Probably suffering from exhaustion from my most religious dirge on the holy power of Mr. Dylan’s voice, my thoughts on this week’s entry were slow going. Having said that, I hope you’ll forgive me, kind reader, for beginning this week’s entry in such a way that makes me sound just the kind of horrible human being I am: a grad student.

At any rate, with that business cleared up, my mind began to perk up during my readings of an Adorno essay on the rise of regressive listening during this last great century as well as a more contemporary one by Judith A. Peraino on the performance and distribution of queer identities and images in gay pop music. Focusing on songs by roots-rock icon and #1 Lesbianinthewholewideworld Melissa Etheridge, Peraino does an impressive job of digging into Etheridge’s catalogue and showing the many ways in which her melodramatic, confessional style is what sells her music most. Because of the bland way in which this all gets presented in the songs, however, Etheridge’s self-touted “honesty” and “grit” are an empty well. Even worse, the icon of everyman’s lesbian melodrama and radio-friendly queerness that Miss Etheridge is hocking puts her and her music to work as disciplinary gay icons, who, as Peraino puts it, “signify while leaving the signified at a distance. . .[publicizing her as] the lesbian phallus.” (133-134).

So, the problem with Etheridge’s brand of mainstream confessional music is that it’s too loaded, too marketable and, ultimately, utterly political. Likewise, counter-mainstream, post-modern, queer music of late strives—perhaps in good faith—to blend performance with politics. And it usually, in spite of itself, gets too confessional too quick. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly nothing wrong with performers, or anyone else for that matter, talking about themselves. The problem these days is that, try as they might, many queer performers, writers and artists who claim to be utterly free of the confines of singular identities seem to have convinced themselves that self-expression amounts to talking about and proving the realness of your identity. When there’s singing to be done, it’s only ever done in praise of collective identity for a liberatory cause—one that not only can’t be won, but also can’t even be fought.

Take, for instance, a musical work written by Le Tigre’s J.D. Samson called \”Viz.\” Here, Samson celebrates her wonderful butch, genderqueerness, testifying to its capacity to shock and liberate. After an arduous few seconds of introductory beats, this genderqueer anthem begins, and we find our heroine out on the town trying to have a good time, armed to the teeth with her shimmery genderqueerness and looking for a fight.

Walk in,

Give him my name,

Looks up and down,

Takes a good look at my pecs.

Puts down the clipboard,

Opens the rope for my ‘stache

Walk in with my duffel hangin’

Hat is tilted on the side,

My eyes dream of bedroom surprise.

Finally, with that out of the way, the chorus begins:

They call it climbing and I call it visibility

They call it coolness and I call it visibility

They call it way too rowdy I call it finally free

This refrain is repeated over and over during the course of the song. While it’s sung confidently, I just don’t really get it. It’s one thing to be pleased with yourself, nay, in awe of your own social and physical appearance.  But is it visibility that makes Samson free? Really? Haven’t we been warned duly about the trap of visibility, especially in racial formation? Besides, by indexing her fabulousness and her freedom to her butch/queerness, Samson sells herself short. You can’t be proud about being queer because it’s not something you did. Songs shouldn’t be sung in the name of our identities, but ourselves. Is anyone really listening to the content of the song or are they too busy being queer, deafened by the clamor of all their tiny revolutions?

None of this matters to the knee-jerk, “regressive” queer listener, intent on consuming a comfortable notion of liberatory identifiction. For one, for people like this, lyrics don’t really matter much, and verses certainly don’t. It’s all about the chorus and “the beat.”  But you can’t simply beat in a message of liberation through personal visibility and representation.  Why do queers insist on this deafdumbandblindness?

Coming from a band that’s famous first and foremost for being queer and feminist, anything Samson, or any of the other members, sing is accepted as inherently political and fiercely queer. But is this so? For one, Samson is probably more famous for her moustache than any of her musical creations or content. So, then, does it make sense for me be holding the content of the song against poor J.D. Samson? She just wants to be seen, I know.  But I can’t help getting frustrated listening to these sorts of queer anthems that get so fashionable in all the counter-cultural circles I bum around in. How do you sing in the name of a thing that doesn’t—or shouldn’t—exist? How can we sing in praise of, and not in spite of, ourselves? Without the rotting smell of excessive freedom lingering over our contrived protests?

The problem for me is that I wonder what in the hell there is to sing about. You can’t proclaim your queerness, can’t construct anthems to your (post-)identity: queer is not a thing, it’s a description. Queer is a mistake that sounds a whole lot better as a mistake. Yet the queer consumer can really get into a tizzy over what or whoever happens to be today’s hottest, most subversive identity. None of it sounds good to me, and it sure doesn’t turn me on. I don’t know about you, but all this visibility is makin’ me want to stay inside and hide.

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2 Comments so far
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scathing.

last week during a fit of sentimentality, i wrote a short note on facebook about how le tigre’s songs remind me of high school and college. i praised their lyrics’ political themes. reading this entry made my cheeks turn red.

there are plenty of le tigre songs i find embarrassing to listen to. “new kicks” and “bang bang” are two examples. when i play le tigre’s cds, though, i tend to simply skip past those tracks, instead of hitting eject because i embraced le tigre’s music as a little silly. i accepted awhile ago that when push comes to shove, riot grrl doesn’t really like it rough.

but this entry will make it more complicated for me to do that next time. there’s self-congratulatory, phony identity and angst in these lyrics.

i should be a more discriminating listener to begin with. a band of 3 white women that uses a beat machine to simulate the sound of gunfire in a song about police brutality displays a degree of ignorance that is offensive and plain to see.

Comment by Emilie Wasserman

What strikes me about this song, and Le Tigre’s music more generally, is its affect of electronic exuberance. But the relation between the exuberance and the lyrics (and the supposedly political content of the lyrics) is an open question. I don’t think Le Tigre’s listeners really care about the content of the lyrics, so long as they vaguely reference SOMETHING queer or political.

I don’t see Le Tigre so much as transmitting a message that anyone is going to ponder or live by so much as creating a sonic space of queer togetherness, “politicization,” and exuberance. So this is what I want to think about: What is there to be said about Le Tigre’s distinctive affects of queerness? We’ve seen plenty of work on gay shame, queer melancholia, and paranoid critique. So what, if anything, is the value of queer exuberance? And does it presuppose identity and pride? And what about exuberant rage (another of Le Tigre’s “political” affects)? I have being scare-quoting “political” throughout because I don’t know if Le Tigre’s music IS political or simply invokes the ambition of politicization. But I do think they want to create group affect around the idea of politicization. If so, then what kind of political affect is exuberance?

Comment by faggotboi




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